Diversity is a key feature of South Africa, where 11 languages are recognised as official, where community leaders include rabbis and chieftains, rugby players and returned exiles, where traditional healers ply their trade around the corner from stockbrokers and where housing ranges from mud huts to palatial homes with swimming pools.
The diverse communities, however, have not had much representation for long.
Until 1994 South Africa was ruled by a white minority government which was so determined to hang onto power that it took activists most of the last century before they succeeded in their fight to get rid of apartheid and extend democracy to the rest of the population.
The white government which came to power in 1948 enforced a separation of races with its policy called apartheid. It dictated that black and white communities should live in separate areas, travel in different buses and stand in their own queues.
The government introduced grand social engineering schemes such as the forced resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people. It poisoned and bombed opponents and encouraged trouble in neighbouring countries.
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At a glance
Politics: The ANC scored its fourth election victory in April 2009
Economy: One of continent's biggest economies. Poverty widespread, high crime rate associated with high unemployment. Economy moved into recession in May 2009
International: Plays a leading role in diplomatic and anti-poverty initiatives in Africa. Emerged from international isolation in 1994 at the end of the apartheid era
The apartheid government eventually negotiated itself out of power, and the new leadership encouraged reconciliation. But the cost of the years of conflict will be paid for a long time yet, not least in terms of lawlessness, social disruption and lost education.
South Africa faces major problems, but having held four successful national elections as well as local polls since the end of white rule, a democratic culture appears to be taking hold, allowing people at least some say in the search for solutions.
Very much Africa's superpower, South Africa has the continent's biggest economy, though this went into recession in May 2009 following a sharp slowdown in the mining and manufacturing sectors. The construction industry, on the other hand, has benefited from a huge programme of government investment ahead of the 2010 World Cup.
Many South Africans remain poor and unemployment is high – a factor blamed for a wave of violent attacks against migrant workers from other African countries in 2008 and protests by township residents over poor living conditions during the summer of 2009.
Land redistribution is an ongoing issue. Most farmland is still white-owned. Having so far acquired land on a “willing buyer, willing seller” basis, officials have signalled that large-scale expropriations are on the cards. The government aims to transfer 30% of farmland to black South Africans by 2014.
South Africa has the second-highest number of HIV/Aids patients in the world. Around one in seven of its citizens is infected with HIV. Free anti-retroviral drugs are available under a state-funded scheme.
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